From the Place Where the Rivers Flow



Will Berkovitz



A Passover D'var reflecting on family history and migration.


My grandmother escaped from Russia hiding under a pile of hay in a horse-drawn wagon. At the border, men with pitchforks stabbed into it, attempting to thwart any stowaways. They didn't succeed and she and her family found their way to Minnesota, where her daring story seemed utterly incongruent with the 84-year-old woman in the nursing home bed doing the telling.

Her journey from Russia was just one mere tributary in the sweeping narrative of the Jewish people -- a narrative that leads back to another bold escape at another time in an ancient land. And yet the stories are connected. "All rivers run to the sea," says Ecclesiastes. "And yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, they flow again."

Perhaps one of the reasons we are commanded once a year to gather and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt is to encourage us to reflect on exactly how we got here and where we are going. Who were the people that came before us? What were their dreams, their values? What was their haggadah, their story? "From where did our rivers flow?"

My parents married late and my mother died early. Like my grandmother before her, she was a living haggadah -- the keeper of the family story. It seemed she could tell me what the relatives were carrying when they crossed the Red Sea and for whom they were named. Her death was more of an ellipsis than a period. With her passing and my maturity, I have come to understand the significance of the echos that return to many of the questions about the family history. Yet the black and white photos of relatives looking back at me in family albums are silent -- their stories and names have been lost.

I am aware that Passover is not only an opportunity to recount the tale of the Israelites' journey to freedom, but also to reflect on the equally immediate experience of our families' journey. How did we get here? Who were the people whose small and large decisions brought us to this seder, this table, this year? And how are we celebrating our freedom?

Mah nishtanah? Why on this night are we in the United States and not in Russia or Argentina or Israel? Ma nishtanah? Why on this night are we sitting together and how did we contribute to our collective story this past year? Mah nishtanah? Why on this night do we speed through the story to get to the food, when we could linger, go a bit deeper and ask a bigger question? Mah nishtanah? What is written on the Haggadah of our lives this year? What was our slavery, our redemption and our freedom? And how have we helped others who are still calling out for redemption?

We are told to see ourselves as having escaped from Egypt. Maybe we should also see ourselves as having left every subsequent land with our ancestors, be it Yemen, Rhodes or Germany, until we find ourselves where we are at the seder this year. And then we should look around at our family and our community, and we should say thank you to those people for being with us on this night. We should thank our ancestors for making our freedom possible. And reflect on what are we doing with it.

And when we say the shehecheyanu -- when we say, "Praised are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us and for allowing us to arrive at this time" -- we will understand just what it means to arrive at this time and from where we have come. And maybe then we will reflect on all those people who helped us get here and those who are not here. And that while we are free, others are still struggling for their redemption and waiting for us. And we will come to understand how our lives and our destinies are absolutely bound together. Our freedom is still partial.

I know when I sit down at the seder table and I begin to tell the story to my children, I will rejoice as my 4-year old son, Idan, recites the four questions. I will begin to tell them of a little girl in the back of a hay wagon in Russia and her journey. And those who made it possible. I will tell them who they are named after and why. And maybe, just maybe, in this way we will feel that this story, our story, is not very old, but very, very new. That it is an ongoing narrative -- a beautiful poem. That our Exodus continues. Our journey continues. And our redemption continues. And our obligation continues. That just as others helped us reach this place and this time, so too we must help those who are still trying to escape or have just arrived. That there is a price for our freedom beyond gratitude.

"To the place where the rivers flow, they flow again."

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Comments on this Text

1. Who were the people that came before us? What were their dreams and their values?
2. What was our ancestors' stories? "From where did our rivers flow?"
3. Where will your river 'flow again?' What will you do to continue forging a path